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the square ball week: korsten

the square ball week: korsten

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There’s a story in the squad numbers at Leeds United for 1998/99 season, the story of how everything changed.

Even today 1-11 are still the sought after shirts, and look at who had them in autumn 1998: no.3, David Robertson. No.4, Alfe-Inge Haaland. No.6, David Wetherall. No.8, Clyde Wijnhard. No.10, Bruno Ribeiro.

Then look at the next group, the first gang of reserves: no.12, David Hopkin. No.15, Mark Beeney. No.16, Danny Granville. No.17, Derek Lilley. No.18, Gunnar Halle.

There were some good names there, great servants to United in unglorious times (although, compared to now, one wonders what we were worrying about). But flip the squad list and start again from the bottom. No.40, Matt Jones. No.39, Alan Smith. No.37, Stephen McPhail. No.36, Paul Robinson. No.25, Jonathan Woodgate. No.20, Ian Harte. No.19, Harry Kewell.

The younger, lower orders were waiting in the wings, and they didn’t wait long; just long enough for the bench to switch the same way, with elder stroller George Graham scurrying back to smoky London in October, and ur-babe David O’Leary taking his place. 1998/99 was the year when Leeds United, clad in sheeny-shiny Puma tops with the new Euro shield, reinvented itself for the millennium, with new stars and a new attitude.

Nominally wearing the no.7 shirt at the start of that season was Lee Sharpe, now remembered as a £4.5m nail in Howard Wilkinson’s coffin; unfairly, given that Wilko brought Nigel Martyn and Lee Bowyer to the club in the same summer. And Ian Rush. So okay, it was 50/50. But by the time O’Leary took over Sharpe had done nothing to shrug off his misfit reputation, and he was soon loaned out to Sampdoria, because where else would you loan out Lee Sharpe.

Taking his place, in January, was Willem Korsten, on loan from Vitesse Arnheim. Because where else would you get a 6ft3in, floppy-haired left-sided attacker? Not quite a winger, not quite a midfielder, Korsten arrived to ease the transition for Leeds, for whom players like Smith and McPhail weren’t quite ready to replace Wijnhard and Ribeiro, but for whom Wijnhard and Ribeiro were no longer quite good enough.

Korsten unlocked extra attacking options and he unlocked the young squad’s true potential. There had been individual headline performances before he arrived: Woodgate in the home UEFA Cup match against Roma, Smith scoring on his debut at Anfield. But with Korsten in the side, Leeds found a real groove, and the new generation equalled a club record by winning seven league games in a row.

Aston Villa, Everton, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and Nottingham Forest were all beaten; Harry Kewell, Matt Jones, Ian Harte, Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate and Stephen McPhail all played. Korsten started in four of the games, and was used a substitute in another; he scored twice, against Everton and Derby, and was brilliant throughout. Korsten looked ungainly but he was quick and had tricks, and if the tricks didn’t work, his size meant he could steamroller a gap anyway. Defenders loved to kick him, and he, playing upfront with Hasselbaink, Kewell and Smith, loved to bamboozle them into giving them all space to exploit; either them, or Lee Bowyer, bursting from midfield.

The fans loved him, and loved what he did for the side. Apart from bringing Batty back, O’Leary had yet to bother Peter Ridsdale’s chequebook, and with the form Korsten and Leeds showed, the £1.5m asked to sign him permanently from Vitesse Arnheim seemed like money that would propel Leeds into the Champions League. That seven win streak extended into nine unbeaten, from February 17th until the end of the season United’s record was won nine, drawn four, lost one.

But they’d also lost Willem Korsten. Leeds had thought they had their man locked down, with £200,000 paid to Vitesse Arnheim not only for the loan deal but first refusal on a permanent £1.5m transfer. That came with a requirement for an early decision, though, and in mid-April Korsten sat down for talks and promptly got up again, cutting short the loan move and returning to Holland.

“When we started talking to Willem last Friday I asked him if he wanted to play for Leeds United,” said Peter Ridsdale after the deal collapsed. “All he said in reply was that he was very happy in Leeds. It was not the kind of passionate response we were looking for. So the alarm bells started ringing then.”

Weeks of recriminations followed; David O’Leary was never slow at being affronted. “I know where Korsten is going,” he said in May. “I’m not a gambler but you can put your house on it being a club in north London.” In case you’ve forgotten the finer plot points, north London was where George Graham went when he walked out on Leeds, to Spurs.

“It is the way it has been done that upsets me,” said O’Leary. “I am not just inferring that it was done while the player was here. I know it was done while he was here.

“Perhaps Tottenham have adopted a system where they let other people do the scouting and then go and nick them after that. They just hijack deals at the last minute. I am not naive and we are all trying to nick players, that is par for the course, but I feel very hurt at the way this was done.”

Korsten wasn’t the only player George Graham was trying to nick; Sunderland all but confirmed Michael Bridges as a Spurs player before Leeds returned with a higher bid. But by then another Korsten sub-plot had played out, perhaps more significant than George Graham’s trolling.

According the papers, when Korsten’s contract conversation stopped, so did O’Leary’s; the club eventually tied their new manager to sign a five-year contract in mid-May, but O’Leary wanted the club to prove it could sign — and keep — the players he wanted. “If one of my best players would be sold I wouldn’t stand for it, no way. It would be the end of me,” he said. “If they do want to get rid of me, then they’ll probably sell one of my top-class players.”

Korsten had been top of the list of players O’Leary wanted to keep, and although Ridsdale claimed — along with a public apology to the fans and O’Leary — that United had offered Korsten the terms he wanted, other sources claimed the club’s haggling over £50,000 had caused the breakdown. At the end of May the departure of managing director Jeremy Fenn was announced, described in the tabloids as a “victory” for O’Leary in a “power-struggle” at Elland Road: ‘O’Leary KOs Leeds Rival.’ The same day, Leeds signed Eirik Bakke for £1.8m; soon, they were buying Danny Mills for £4m, Michael Duberry for £4.5m, outbidding Spurs for Michael Bridges, and using the Hasselbaink money — a player neither board or manager could convince to stay — to buy Darren Huckerby. Later that year they spent £3m on Jason Wilcox, finally filling the left-sided spot Korsten had been earmarked for and freeing Harry Kewell to roam; even if it did cost twice the price.

That was very much the Leeds O’Leary wanted, though; where money was no object, and the solution to any problem was to spend more money. In the long run, it didn’t do him much good. Neither, in the long run, did it do Willem Korsten much good to get the move he wanted; at Spurs he played twenty-three games and scored three goals before a hip injury he’d been battling his whole career returned, and ended it, in October 2001. He was only 26. He’d played one more game at Elland Road, which Leeds won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Harry Kewell, and I doubt he will have forgotten the reception he got from the spurned Leeds fans. Or the reaction in West Yorkshire when injury ended his career: ‘Good. Served him right.’

It had all been so good when Willem first arrived at Elland Road, nobody could have imagined it ending that way, especially with a deal in place to sign him permanently, and with the love of the fans for the player, and the love of the player — so we thought — for the fans. We thought we’d watch Willem Korsten for years; we saw him in nine games.

We’ve seen Pontus Jansson in six and have thirteen to go, and we love him and we think he loves us. And that’s what made me think of Willem Korsten.

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